Thursday, December 06, 2007

Interview in an Instant: Jon Cruddas MP

We had some fantastic keynote speakers at the 2007 National Conference, and we were able to grab them after their speeches for a few in depth questions. In the first of our “Interviews in an Instant” Jon Cruddas MP shares his happiest moments, tips for STAR members, and his views on the future of asylum policy…

Jon Cruddas is MP for Barking and Dagenham. He bagan is political career as policy officer for the Labour Party in 1989 and proceeded to become Tony Blair’s deputy political secretary, in which post he worked on the introduction of the national minimum wage. In the 2001 general election he was elected to the House of Commons as MP for Dagenham. He has campaigned against the BNP in East London and has been heavily involved in “Anti-Fascist Fortnight”. Among other things Jon has opposed the limiting of asylum seekers rights, privatisation of the NHS, university top up fees, and was a participant in Refugee Week earlier this year.

When are you happiest?

Probably when I am out fishing, I was out fishing on Monday and I caught a barbel. It is the hardest fighting course fish in the country, but it is very environmentally sound the way we do it, barbless hooks and all the rest.

Which living person do you most admire, and why?

The great hero in our family was not a party political figure, we were an Irish catholic family, and it was Oscar Romero who was the household hero. He has now died in El Salvador. I don’t really have heroes like that I am afraid. Bobby Womack I suppose.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

I don’t know, but I never thought I would be an MP, I still haven’t got used to the idea!

What first drew you to speaking/ writing about refugees and asylum seekers?

Really just my experience as an MP in London and what is going on in big communities like mine, which are changing rapidly. There are groups, hundreds of them, who have in effect been dis-invented. For public policy purposes they have ceased to exist. It is their plight which is extraordinary to witness and I see it every day, some of the most vulnerable people in society who are in the process of claiming refugee status, who have for many years are bounced around by the system, and are often abused by landlords, criminal gangs or employers. It is incumbent upon MPs to acknowledge them and try and help them. It comes back to why you get involved in politics in the first place.

How do you think attitudes towards refugees and asylum seekers have changed in the past 5 years?

Well I think things are difficult. The terms of debate have got worse over the years. The term refugee has become contaminated; it needs to be rehabilitated through the testimonies of those concerned, and through actually re-establishing the principles of our society and acting on the behalf of the vulnerable, internationally and domestically.

What are the key challenges in securing a government asylum policy that is humane and treats refugees with respect?

Partly it is about dismantling the terms of the current debate, which collapses the issues of migration and asylum into one and increasingly takes on a dangerous racial tenor. It is only by mature isolation of the different elements of the debate and providing different remedies that we can actually shift the contours of debate. The film, Still Human Still Here, can I think have great impact if we use it. It is a very moving piece of work. I think culturally things are shifting, if you look at the work of filmmakers like Nick Broomfield and Ken Loach (who did a brilliant piece on the abuse of migrant workers) it is just the political classes that are lagging behind. But there is a bedrock of support for a more radical agenda in Parliament. That support isn’t party political but is a more humane approach that seeks to rehabilitate the term refugee. But it is difficult.

What do you think can be done to encourage responsible media coverage of asylum and refugee issues?

I think by the type of campaigning built around personal testimony, it is very moving and I think the British people will respond. I think that confidence also has to be re-established in the basic bureaucracy surrounding the Home Office. The lack of confidence in Home Office procedure undermines people’s capacity to be moved and act in a humane way, if they think that systemically things are not working.

Drawing on your work and experiences, if you could make one thing known to the world about what it is like to be a refugee, what would it be?

I would try to demonstrate their plight by showing how the current system ignores people, often with children, and traps them so that they can’t go anywhere. If people could be made to understand how they suffer from compound abuse, from landlords etc. that would allow us to have a more humane rational debate. It is the level of ignorance around the real facts that we have to change.

What top tips would you give to STAR members attempting to improve the position of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK?

I would just say keep on going, it is not good at the moment, this is tough terrain, but it is a categorical imperative to carry on this work, not least because it is so difficult.

If you could single handedly implement one change in UK Asylum Policy what would it be?

I would allow asylum seekers to work legally, because not allowing them plays in to the hands of this mindset that they are taking things, and undermines the capacity to have a rational debate about what they are fleeing from and the contribution that they wish to make. It plays into the hands of those who want to demonise and stigmatise them. Allowing them to work is both rational and sensible.

Posted by Russell Brooks on 06/12/2007 at 01:16 PM